Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray aren’t vastly different, explains Oklahoma coach

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Now we turn our attention to what could be the most interesting draft story in a generation: Who falls in love with 5-foot-9 7/8 (in his stocking feet) quarterback Kyler Murray, who now seems likely to be the first athlete ever drafted in the top 10 in two sports?

To begin to answer the question, start at ground zero. Dispel what you think you know about Murray—unless, of course, you’ve scouted him thoroughly or saw every game Oklahoma played last season. Because a sub-5-10 quarterback who runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds, ran the ball 140 times last fall and has quickness in Tyreek Hill’s league would naturally be a scrambling, throw-on-the-run type of player, right?

“What percentage of the time,” I asked Oklahoma coach and Murray mentor Lincoln Riley the other day, “would you guess Kyler threw from the pocket this year?”

Riley thought for a few seconds.

“Eighty-five percent?” Riley said. “Ninety, maybe.”

Think of how amazing that is—a short quarterback who runs like a greyhound, and Riley called a similar percentage of designed passes from the pocket as many NFL teams with classic dropback passers would. Think of how the game has changed from a decade ago, when a fleet and smallish quarterback would basically be an option quarterback playing the game on the edges. Not Riley. Not with Murray. His runs? Mostly designed runs to takes advantage of a player with Vick-type tools.

Riley’s guess on Murray’s pocket throwing is pretty damn close to reality. Pro Football Focus charted the number of Murray’s pass plays in 2018 that came from the pocket. The number: 89 percent. So 336 of his 377 throws for Oklahoma last year came with Murray planted where he could survey the defense and pick his target.

No wonder so many GMs and scouts and friends in the pro coaching business swear by Riley. He had Michael Vick on his hands and coached him like he was Carson Wentz. Riley got Murray ready for the next level, but that’s not why he coached Murray, and called plays for him, the way he did. Riley never got tempted to turn Murray into Lamar Jackson despite Murray’s 4.39-second time in the 40,  and Riley never had to call plays differently for Murray’s sightlines with a monstrous offensive line in front of him (6-5, 6-4, 6-5, 6-5 and 6-4 from left to right). Duke’s Daniel Jones, a fellow first-round prospect, is 6-5 and had 12 passes batted down last season. Missouri’s Drew Lock, 6-4, had eight. Murray had five.

So for the past two seasons, Riley has coached short quarterbacks into Heisman winners who became premier NFL prospects. (Baker Mayfield, at 6-foot 5/8, is 2 3/4 inches taller than Murray.) Riley said he called the same game for both players.

Phoning from Oklahoma the other day, Riley said: “Throughout all the years with both Baker and Kyler, I can’t ever remember there being a time where we said, We want to run this play, or use this scheme, or protect this way but we can’t do it because these guys are 5-10 or 6-foot instead of 6-4. It never really entered into the equation. I don’t think their pro coaches are going to think about it either.”

Riley watched the draft process last year culminate in Mayfield going number one. He watched the success Mayfield had as the dominant presence in helping the Browns from 0-16 to 7-8-1. He thinks Murray will have the same impact on his NFL team.

“I will be shocked,” Riley said, “if five players get their name called on draft day before Kyler.”

Now teams are going to have to decide whether an unfathomable idea a generation ago—drafting a sub-5-foot-10 quarterback high in the first round—is a cutting-edge idea today. Murray is not only a short quarterback. He’s slight. He’s got almost a Mookie Betts build. Russell Wilson’s less than an inch taller, but Wilson is built with a suit of armor. Murray’s built like an outfielder.

So what GM has the guts to pick Murray for his play, and his pedigree, and be confident size won’t wreck his career?

If you’re right, your team’s in the playoffs in 2020. If you’re wrong, you’re probably a road scout in 2022.

Either way, the fact that Murray is in the discussion to be a top-10 pick a year after a 6-foot quarterback went first overall and played well means the football world is changing. A lot.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation 10 years ago,” Riley told me.

“I’m happy. Kudos to pro people, to talent evaluators and coaches. I think the NFL’s evolved. I think they’re getting out of this cookie-cutter mold and opening their eyes to guys who can play. Think about how many great talents potentially were out there that never got seen because they didn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold? Just watch Kyler play. He’s played quarterback most of his life, and he’s always been one of the shorter ones, so to him, it’s just football. Size doesn’t matter.”

Mayfield started for three seasons in Norman, Murray one. Riley was Mayfield’s offensive coordinator for two years and head coach for one, then the head coach and play-caller for Murray last year. I asked Riley to compare them. The confidence, the feel for the game, the competitive gene—pretty much the same in both.

“Baker’s a lot more outwardly emotional and exuberant and more outspoken,” Riley said. “Kyler’s got a little bit more of a quiet intensity. The effect is similar. When they’re in the huddle, the other guys believe they’re going to win.”

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